Thousand Faces of Dunjia, TheReviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 12/18/17 22:20:21
It's unfair to judge a movie based on how well it lives up to its previews, especially in a case like "The Thousand Faces of Dunjia" where the North American distributor is trying to sell the film to an audience that likely doesn't necessarily consider Da Peng, Ni Ni, Zhou Dongyu, and Aarif Lee an all-star cast and has a new "Star Wars" movie opening the same weekend to scratch their big special-effects itch. It's understandable that they don't show the big CGI creatures in that case, but it sure feels like a heck of a bait-and-switch when they show up in medieval China.To give writer Tsui Hark and director Yuen Woo-ping their due, the introduction of the first alien is a lot of fun, as the giant three-eyed goldfish leads Constable Dao Yicheng (Aarif Rahman Lee) on a rooftop chase across Kaifeng City, with his paths crossing with Metal Dragonfly (Ni Ni), Third Sister of the secretive Wuyin Clan, the top-secret group that hunts down aliens causing trouble on Earth. A meteor crash nearby has caused alien activity to spike, which is why First Brother (Wu Bai) is seeking a powerful weapon in Luoyang and Second Brother Zhuge Chin (Da Peng) is seeking a prophesied new leader - though what he finds is "Circle" (Zhou Dongyu), a timid, amnesiac girl locked up in a mental hospital. Neither she nor Dao seems like they'll be nearly enough when what looks like a flying hairball emerges from the meteor to free a monster secretly kept in chains beneath the city.
Though Tsui Hark is probably best known in the United States for directing the first three Once Upon a Time in China films with Jet Li and a couple of mid-1990s Jean-Claude Van Damme flicks, he's spent a good chunk of his career trying to make the biggest special-effects extravaganzas possible on a Hong Kong budget, so a bunch of CGI monsters in a movie he wrote and produced isn't completely unexpected, even if director Yuen Woo-ping has mostly used digital effects to remove the wires from his anti-gravity martial arts choreography. The ones their effects team comes up with here are genuinely odd ducks indeed, well on the "fake" side of the uncanny valley, always lit just a bit too evenly, and with mouths that don't really move enough for how much dialogue they're given (though maybe that's a Mandarin/Cantonese thing), but enjoyably weird in their design. Though done with CGI rather than make-up and puppetry, there's something to them that evokes the gonzo creatures and zombies that Yoshihiro Nishimura creates for his low-budget monster films; as much as these things are never really fooling anybody, they're at least memorable enough to open a discussion on whether audiences should perhaps give rough digital effects the same leeway they give to rough practical ones.
The filmmakers have also assembled a fun cast. It's kind of overstuffed - there are something like five Wuyin Clan members who may or may not be given names that align with their weapons or fighting styles before they provide a little bulk to an action scene and make a joke or two in the mid-credits scene - but the main group are kind of fun as they're set up with goofy comedy pairings: Ni Ni and Aarif Rahman Lee pay Dragonfly and Dao as kind of annoyed with each other but a growing chemistry; she does super-capable without it becoming haughty while he makes Dao goofily earnest but with some genuine weight as his continuing to stumble onto Wuyin business (and getting his memory erased) kind of ruins his life. Zhou Dongyu does a good job of making Circle a cheery blank slate while still having enough of a sense of the darkness inside her to be frightened of it, with Dong Chengpeng (aka "Da Peng") doing broad comic infatuation around her. They're boosted by Wu Bai, who grounds some of the weirder scenes as First Brother, and Ada Liu, who is funny as the prostitute they keep running across.
That's all well and good, but for all the campy monsters and enjoyable banter, there's supposed to be an enjoyable fantasty adventure in the middle of this, and that never quite works. Though the film's Chinese title "Qimen Munjia" will likely mean something to fans of Chinese myth and fantasy (the opening titles reference an actual legend while admitting this is a more science-fictional take on it), the mythology created for the film is both generic and convoluted, the sort that creates five mystical clans for the purpose of a couple of wire-fu fights. The action sequences based around actual humans jumping around and punching each other aren't bad at all, as Yuen Woo-ping hasn't lost his eye for such things. It's worth noting that though it's getting a modest release in North America, it's a big Imax 3D blockbuster in China, so a lot of effects scenes are built around that, with stuff flying at the audience's face and moments where things hang in the air, aiming to impress the audience with how cool this all looks floating in space. And that's more or less how the film climaxes, with two digital avatars duking it out while human beings look up from beneath.As much as I'm generally willing to enjoy that sort of thing, I suspect I'm not the only one in the audience who goes to a movie directed by Yuen Woo-ping expecting to see people doing crazy physical feats, not video-game-like visual effects. Sure, some of that disappointment is based on bad expectations, but I suspect, even knowing just what sort of movie this is, it would still be hard to muster up much enthusiasm for the sequel promised at the finish.
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